WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to clarify the powers of federal customs officers and the courts to set the tariffs imposed on imported goods.
Behind a dispute between the Customs Service and the specialized federal appeals court that oversees tariff cases is an underlying conflict over judges' power to second-guess agency decisions.
The legal principle at stake, the Justice Department told the court, goes beyond customs matters and could affect how virtually all federal agencies' decisions fare when challenged in court.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit decided that it had no obligation to follow Customs Service decisions on tariffs, because they are set on a case-by-case basis, sometimes by officers in the field, rather than through formal regulations or policy declarations.
Such case-by-case tariffs, if challenged, are not binding on the court, the appeals court said.
In taking the case to the Supreme Court, the service complained that the appeals court has refused for the past five years to defer to the agency's interpretations of customs laws. It noted that the Supreme Court had overturned one of those rulings by the appeals court a year ago, in a case involving imports of wrinkle-free men's slacks.
In the case before the justices, the appeals court ruled that "day planners" - memo pads used for the recording of appointments and day-to-day assignments - are not diaries, within the meaning of customs laws and thus are free of any tariff.
A diary, it said, records impressions, sometimes at great length, and not just notations of appointments.
The Customs Service argued that day planners qualify as diaries, making them subject to a tariff of 1.6 percent of imported value.
The case involves Mead Corp., which imports five varieties of day planners for resale in the United States.